Somalia: For A Few Headlines More


May 20, 2015: Peacekeeper commanders believe that most remaining al Shabaab men have been forced into remote areas of the southern Juba Valley (near the Kenyan border) and north (Galhala Hills in Puntland). From these bases the Islamic terrorists are still able to plan and carry out attacks in Mogadishu and other parts of the country. There are also small groups of al Shabaab gunmen operating throughout the interior where they are seen as just more bandits. Major sources of income (from smuggling, extortion and port fees) have been greatly reduced and al Shabaab now gets by via banditry and looting. Peacekeepers are negotiating with Puntland to cooperate in a joint operation to drive al Shabaab out of southern Puntland. The 22,000 peacekeepers in Somalia, nearly all of them from African nations, have been quite successful against al Shabaab in the last two years and Puntland has noticed.

Meanwhile al Shabaab has its own internal struggle as the leadership is divided over remaining affiliated with al Qaeda while other want to go with ISIL (for greater visibility and easier fundraising and recruiting.) At the same time there is the growing problem of al Shabaab hostility to foreign fighters. Even though many of these were ethnic Somalis, they grew up or were born elsewhere and did not come across as native Somalis but as foreigners. Initially that was seen as exotic and a sign of international recognition. These foreign fighters were given a lot of publicity by al Shabaab and foreign news organizations amplified that. After 2007 and the destruction of al Qaeda operations in Iraq al Qaeda sent more people to Somalia and East Africa. These foreigners also brought cash for al Shabaab as well as international connections. But in the end the well-publicized alliance of al Shabaab with al Qaeda was more style than substance. The money from al Qaeda dried up gradually, especially after the death of Osama bin Laden (at the hands of American troops) in 2011. A month later the head of al Qaeda operations in East Africa was killed at a roadblock. Many foreign members of al Shabaab believe the al Qaeda leader was assassinated by al Shabaab leaders that wanted to cut all ties with al Qaeda and get rid of foreigners who had joined al Shabaab. Since then the al Qaeda affiliation have been more imaginary than real. After 2011 most of the prominent foreign al Shabaab fighters are killed in combat or executed by the al Shabaab leadership. Many foreigners quit, although that is considered desertion and proof that you are a traitor. While some “deserters” got caught and executed other did get away safely to report what was really going on. Despite that there are still foreign volunteers, and most are accepted, especially if they will volunteer to be suicide bombers. Defectors report that fewer than 200 foreigners actually joined al Shabaab over the years. Now some al Shabaab leaders are seeking to trade up and establish a similar (fictional but useful) relationship with ISIL. Being associated with ISIL gets you more media attention and that means more cash contributions and an easier time recruiting inside Somalia. Meanwhile al Shabaab now gets nearly all its financial support locally, mostly from criminal enterprises (mainly extortion and theft).

Somali officials are faced with a unique problem as Somali refugees in Yemen are now fleeing back to Somalia. There are over 300,000 Somalis in nearby Yemen, most of them there illegally. There is a civil war going on in Yemen that got particularly widespread and violent since March. Foreigners, particularly illegal migrants, have become a target. The most hospitable and accessible refuge for Somalis in Yemen is Somalia. But only about 7,000 have made it back to Somalia (usually Puntland and Somaliland up north) so far.

May 19, 2015: In Kenya the government revealed that is had been tracking down and closing accounts on social media web sites (Twitter, whatsApp, instagram and Facebook) that were found to be supporting  recruitment for al Shabaab, or engaged in fund raising or just general support of Islamic terrorism in Kenya. The companies running these sites will shut down accounts if a government provides (or simply points out) evidence that the site is violating the terms of service (which almost always prohibits promotion of murder and other mayhem for any reason). 

May 16, 2015: The United States has banned American commercial aviation from flying over Somalia. This is because of the perceived threat of al Shabaab obtaining and using anti-aircraft weapons capable of hitting airliners flying at high altitudes (10,000 meters/32,000 feet). This fear is based on the 2014 incident where Russian backed Ukrainian rebels used a modern Russian mobile anti-aircraft missile system to shoot down a Boeing 777 airliner flying over eastern Ukraine on its way to eastern Asia. Such anti-aircraft weapons are not widely available in East Africa.

May 15, 2015: In the southeast (lower Shabelle region) al Shabaab attacked an army camp before dawn, killed ten soldiers and caused the others to flee. That allowed the Islamic terrorists to take control of a nearby town and then another one down the road. By the next day army reinforcements showed up and chased the al Shabaab gunmen back into the bush. This counterattack left at least twenty Islamic terrorists dead along with four soldiers.

May 13, 2015: In central Somalia (Galguduud) an Iranian seagoing fishing boat put in to the fishing town of el Dheer. A local group of al Shabaab men saw an opportunity and came to town and seized the ship and the crew (14 Iranians) to hold for ransom. That may be difficult as on March 25th for the first time since 2012 Somali pirates captured another Iranian ship. In this case it was a slow moving ocean-going fishing trawler. This Iranians can be unpredictable in situations like this and there is a real possibility the Iranians will respond with military force rather than a ransom payment. So far nothing has been heard about ransom negotiations. The captured Iranian ship was fishing illegally in Somali waters as were several other foreign trawlers at the time. These "freezer trawlers" are up to 100 meters (320 feet) long and have facilities on board to store hundreds of tons of frozen fish. These ships normally stay at sea months at a time and have crews of 14-30. The pirates don't get as large a ransom for fishing ships as they do for larger cargo and tanker ships. This is particularly true of the coastal freezer trawlers, which are often old and worth less than half a million dollars each. The owner cannot pay whatever ransom the pirates often demand for these ships. These trawlers are all over the Indian Ocean, between Africa and India, and early on the pirates realized that they could hide two speedboats on these vessels and the fishing crew could be used to operate the ship, in addition to twenty or so pirates as passengers. But coast guards in the region, and the international anti-piracy patrol in general, were soon paying closer attention to all those fishing ships. If you know what to look for, and look closely, you can detect which ones are run by pirates. The names of captured fishing ships were known, and added to a “wanted” list distributed to all ships in the anti-piracy patrol and coast guards in the region. There was a sense of urgency with this because the pirates treated the fishermen much more savagely (starving and beating them, often to death). While trawlers were preferred for mother ships at least one group of pirates used a small (95 meter long) tanker instead. The motherships have been largely absent since 2012 and it is unclear what is going to happen to the two captive Iranian trawlers. Meanwhile the anti-piracy patrol is warning trawlers and the companies that own them to stay away from the Somali coast. When these trawlers are fishing illegally they can expect no protection from the anti-piracy patrol. When under attack the trawlers can call for help but because trawlers move slowly while working and are close to shore there is rarely time for anti-piracy forces to reach them in time. To many (especially Somalis) the illegal fishing is simply another form of piracy. 

May 12, 2015: In Kenya, near the Somali border, fifteen al Shabaab gunmen attacked a police camp but were repulsed, losing at least two men. In Mogadishu a firing squad executed two al Shabaab men convicted of murdering five people, including four members of parliament (one of them a woman).  At the same time the police and army conducted another major sweep of Mogadishu seeking any al Shabaab men who had sneaked back in recently. At least ten suspects were arrested.

May 8, 2015: In the north (Puntland) al Shabaab took responsibility for the murder of a local politician as he left a mosque. The gunmen threw grenades as they fled to discourage pursuers.

May 7, 2015: In Mogadishu a landmine went off near a checkpoint killing one policeman and wounding another. Two other landmines were found in the area and disabled.

May 6, 2015: North of Mogadishu an al Shabaab roadside bomb was used against a peacekeeper convoy but did not cause any serious injuries. In Mogadishu an al Shabaab assassin killed a local government official.

In Kenya the government backed off on its plan to expel all (over 600,000) legal and illegal Somali refugees in the country. The expulsion threat came in response to ever horrendous al Shabaab attacks, including an April 2nd massacre of Christian students at a university campus that killed 148. The UN promised to help with refugee camp security and moving more of them back to Somalia.

May 4, 2015: In northwest Kenya (near the borders of South Sudan, Uganda and Ethiopia) nearly fifty tribesmen were killed and over 300 of their cattle were stolen by a gang armed with AK-47s. Tribal feuds over land use and cattle stealing are common, especially with the continuing availability of cheap AK-47s, which began to appear in the area in the late 1990s as East European and Russian dealers unloaded millions of Cold War surplus rifles and pistols from former communist countries. Since 2013 the “cattle wars” in northern Kenya have killed over 200 and caused more than 100,000 to flee their homes.

May 3, 2015: The government has made it illegal to mention al Shabaab by name. The group can be called Islamic terrorists, murderers, criminals, anything but al Shabaab (which means “the youth” in Arabic, a language related to Somali). Groups like al Shabaab survive, in part, because of publicity which makes it easier for them to recruit and raise money (or just scare people into giving it up). 

April 27, 2015: In Mogadishu al Shabaab death squads murdered four government officials over the weekend. Al Shabaab took credit for all these attacks.  

Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni has told his security forces that the continuing terror threat presented by Somalia’s al Shabaab means the government must revive military training for Ugandan civilians living in vulnerable areas. Museveni did not specify the vulnerable areas. At one time Uganda had a military training (local self-defense training) program, but it lapsed as the LRA (Lords Resistance Army) threat faded. Al Shabaab maintains that all of Uganda is a target. The Ugandan Army currently has 6,000 peacekeepers in Somalia.





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